Justice Department Charges WikiLeaks' Assange With Computer Hacking Conspiracy

Apr 11, 2019
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's update you on the story that has been unfolding all morning. WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was arrested in London this morning. He's now facing charges in the United States. He had been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. And we spoke earlier with WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, who told us that British authorities should respect Assange's asylum there.

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON: It is a gross violation of international treaties and an outrageous behavior in all respects. A country simply shouldn't revoke the status of that kind when it has been granted in the first place.

GREENE: Now, the Ecuadorian government said they had cause to revoke Assange's asylum. British authorities said they were arresting him because he violated his bail and was due in court and did not show up. But this story is much more complicated because this morning, the U.S. Justice Department has charged Assange with conspiracy to hack its computers. And let's talk through those charges with NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what exactly is the U.S. government accusing Assange of? - because this has been a long time in the making, right?

LUCAS: It has indeed been a long time in the making. But the charge in the indictment against Assange - there is one count that is conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that, basically, boils down to a computer-hacking conspiracy. What the indictment says is that Assange entered into an agreement with Chelsea Manning - who was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst at the time - to help Manning crack a password stored on a Defense Department computer system that was connected to a government network that's used for classified documents, classified communications.

This agreement was allegedly entered into back in March of 2010. And what the indictment says is that cracking that password would have allowed Manning to, basically, log in with someone else's name. That would have made identifying Manning's role in what ended up being a massive leak of classified information more difficult. The indictment says that Manning provided part of a password to Assange. Assange later asked Manning for more information on the password, saying he'd been trying to crack it but hadn't been able to so far. The indictment does not say, however, that Assange ever managed to crack the password. We just don't know at this point.

GREENE: OK. I want to - I mean, there are different ways to look at WikiLeaks and Assange, which is really going to be central to wherever this story goes. I just want to play a little bit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defining what WikiLeaks is in his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is - a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.

GREENE: So, Ryan, it sounds like that is what the U.S. government is charging them with - not just being a journalism media organization, as WikiLeaks has said, but suggesting or accusing Assange and WikiLeaks of actually being proactive in encouraging someone or making it easier for them to hack into the U.S. system.

LUCAS: Well, Pompeo was actually director of the CIA when he made those comments. I was at that speech in Washington when he made it, and we were all kind of flabbergasted by how strongly he came out against WikiLeaks. It's been known for quite some time, as you mentioned, that the national security establishment here in the U.S. is no fan of WikiLeaks.

What Pompeo also said in that speech, though, is that he accused WikiLeaks of encouraging followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to dig up intelligence. And also, one complaint that we frequently hear from U.S. officials is that WikiLeaks overwhelmingly focuses on the United States. It talks about shining a light on wrongdoing from governments across the world but that it doesn't report on, say, Russia. It doesn't report on China. And Pompeo himself actually accused WikiLeaks of being, essentially, in cahoots with dictators.

GREENE: Well, let's listen to the other side of this argument. As we've been covering this all morning, we spoke with the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has closely followed this and is an Assange ally who said this arrest is really a danger to press freedom.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I agree with the Obama Justice Department, The Washington Post editorial of 2011, The Guardian editorial from yesterday and the consensus of press freedom groups around the world, which is that prosecuting Julian Assange in connection with publishing secret documents that showed U.S. war crimes is one of the greatest threats to press freedom possibly imaginable.

GREENE: So is that going to be an argument here? - that WikiLeaks deserves protection from the First Amendment in the United States.

LUCAS: Well, this is certainly something that WikiLeaks supporters have used to try to protect the organization for a long time, saying it operates largely as a media organization does. It's shining a light on wrongdoing of governments. And it deserves the same sort of protections that a regular media organization does. But that has been, you know, part of the discussion internally within the U.S. Justice Department about trying to figure out how, and if it's possible, to bring charges against WikiLeaks, against Julian Assange, without making some sort of negative precedent.

GREENE: All right, a lot to cover here. We've been following this story all morning. We'll be covering it throughout the day. And you heard some of our interviews there with the editor of WikiLeaks and also with the journalist Glenn Greenwald. You can find those full interviews at our website npr.org. Speaking here with Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department for NPR.

Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.